Have you accepted yet that you're going to die? Have you? Honestly? We've been doing it for thousands of years but, for some reason, most of us won't figure out how to deal with it until it's too late. This is something every one of us has in common, but in the short game of life, it's the elephant in the room.
We're all here trying to learn to live fulfilling, financially independent lives and if we're going to be successful at it before we go, I think this throat-clearing, eye-averting topic must be addressed. We're running out of time.
This is not about getting you to learn about life insurance or writing a bulletproof will. This is about our legacies.
What will you leave behind?
During this Thanksgiving season, I have a whole lot to be thankful for. My basic needs have always been met: I've been clothed, fed, and sheltered since the day I was born. I have a loving and supportive family that helped me graduate from college without any debt. I found a good job that pays well, and I'm able to save for some big financial goals. There's a whole list of people who gave selflessly to me to make that happen. Now, it's my honor and duty to return the favor.
When you die, everything you owned, everything you did — it all becomes immediately useless if it didn't bring value and joy to others. Your legacy is all that matters. It's the one and only thing that lives on once you're gone. Creating a legacy of joy and value is not necessarily a difficult task, but in the busy lives we lead of oftentimes conflicting demands, it's easy to forget.
I like to compare it to making my bed. When I do it, it only takes a moment and I feel great about it afterwords, but with everything else on my mind in the morning, it often gets forgotten. Once I remember to do it a few times in a row, it's practically a habit.
Whatever you do, don't forget to make your bed.
Maybe you've come from humble beginnings and are now on a path to financial abundance. Maybe you've inherited a windfall and you're proud of yourself for learning the skills it will take to maintain it for generations to come. Perhaps you're simply trying to learn to live on as little money as possible. Whatever your situation, we all share these feelings.
There's a minor problem with this description, though. We're not independent. Even once we've reached complete financial enlightenment, we still can't exist on our own. Society just doesn't work like that. We will always depend on others to build and maintain any lifestyle we come to enjoy. We can't do it on our own. We're interconnected and there's no way around it.
Money or relationships?
We can talk all day about which things are worth owning or doing in life, but what I've recently realized is that there is only one question that I need to answer to decide if what I do will produce lasting value for me: Is this going to provide value to anyone else?
This can be a tough question to answer, and even tougher to follow through on. I was raised to be self-reliant and do anything I could to get ahead. This logic can seem counter-intuitive when you've lived your whole life in that mindset. Please know that it's not. I used to believe that it was money that sustained me, but it isn't. Relationships do.
It's taken a long time to realize, but the best way for me to get ahead in life — financially or otherwise — is to constantly provide value to others. When I go to great lengths to take care of others, they seem to go to great lengths to take care of me.
- If you have a traditional job, this could mean always finding ways to make your boss look good. If you're afraid that he will take all the credit and leave you in the dust, don't be. Hacks can only fake it for so long, and true talent always stands out in the end.
- If you're self-employed, this might mean giving everything you've got to your clients. You might be scared that you'll work yourself to death only to lose them to a competitor with a cheaper price. Forget about that. Some will leave, but more will stay — many more will come. The ones that left probably weren't a good fit, anyway.
In my relationship with my girlfriend, I know that if I want to be loved like never before, all I have to do is love her like never before. Life is all about give and take relationships; there are no secrets or shortcuts. Give much and much will be given to you.
This kind of approach, especially when applied to personal finance, can be hard to grasp. It requires faith that the effort that you put out will be given back to you. There are no charts, graphs, or Excel spreadsheets that you can make to show how your investment is doing. Logic and reason can break down from time to time. A little bit of patience and faith can take you so far, though.
This isn't too unlike purchasing a long-term retirement investment. You do the research you can and make a decision based on your values. One year, it may be up; another, it could be down. You might get confused and not fully understand what's going on, but sure enough, you stay the course and, years later, it's there to provide for you when you really need it.
But what about all the folks who just lost their retirement nest-egg to the market crash last year? Diversity is just as important to your legacy as it is to your your stock portfolio. Reaching out to give to and help others in your entire sphere of influence is a good way to ensure you get back in all the areas of life that you need. It's a model of delayed gratification. Value must be given now to be received in the future.
It's not about the money
If you're worried that you can't afford to help everyone you'd like to, take a second to think about other ways that you can provide value to your friends or family. My guess is that money is not the solution to most of the problems that you can help them with. There are at least three tools that anyone can use when giving:
- Social resources
All three can be very effective, and if you've got more of one to offer than another, focus your efforts there.
Do you have a friend that just needs a hand with something and you could spare the time to help? Just being there can make all the difference to someone. Maybe a family member needs some help with a problem that you can't solve, but one of your friends with some experience could. Help make the connection.
We're all trying to get to the top of the pile, but ask anyone who's already made it and they'll likely tell you — it's lonely up there. Why not do what you can to bring some friends along?
What unique opportunity do you have to offer value to the world? Who's given you something to be thankful for? What legacy do you want to leave?
Hands photo by Batega. Help photo by Ivanatm.